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Old February 20 2010, 11:12 AM   #35
Gibraltar
Rear Admiral
 
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Location: US Pacific Northwest
Embers of the Fire - Chapter 10

Chapter 10

The crippled starship and the Cardassian cruiser had met almost head on. Sojourner’s mass proved more than sufficient to pierce Vintar’s already battered shields. The science vessel’s duranium hull plunged into the larger warship’s interior as it crumpled, shearing away load bearing struts and opening deck after deck of the cruiser to vacuum. Gouts of flame boiled from Vintar’s catastrophic wounds, and were quickly suffocated for lack of oxygen. The combined momentum of the two ships very nearly cancelled each other out, leaving the fused spaceframes, wed in devastation, to spin slowly in the penumbra of the tortured planet below.

For a brief moment, silence reigned on Gibraltar’s bridge. Sandhurst sat motionless in the captain’s chair, head bowed as he struggled to reign in the torrent of conflicting emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. Part of his mind acknowledged the sound of someone weeping nearby, but he found himself momentarily unable to focus completely on anything exterior. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to cry. Neither urge was appropriate under the circumstances.

Sandhurst found his reaction strange because he had been in combat many times before, and this was not his first narrow escape. Being in command, however, had somehow changed the timbre of the experience dramatically. Someone, perhaps Lightner, called for medical assistance to the bridge. Sandhurst struggled internally to rouse himself. Come on. Pull it together. You just snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. What the hell’s the matter with you?

Olivia Juneau sat mutely at the Ops station as her console displays flickered randomly. Tears streamed down her face as she cradled her visibly broken left arm in her lap. Her breath came in great juddering sobs.

Ensign Lightner deftly brought the ship back on course as he stopped the lateral spin that had resulted from Vintar’s final attack. “Helm control reinstated, Captain. Back on previous heading, speed holding at point-one-six impulse.”

Plazzi pulled himself back up into his chair at the Science station with assistance from another crewman. The older man’s hand was pressed firmly to his forehead to staunch the blood seeping from a gash he had suffered when he was tossed to the deck. He looked at his console and squinted to try and clear his blurred vision as he checked the readings. He cleared his throat and announced, “Captain, the cruiser has been neutralized. They’ve lost main power, and all weapons and defenses are offline.”

Plazzi winced and bit back a groan as his head pulsed with pain. “Looks like auxiliary power is failing over there, sir. I’m picking up approximately fifteen life signs aboard, most of them quite weak.” His report complete, Plazzi pushed back his chair, leaned forward, and vomited loudly beneath his console. As he tried not to spatter his boots, the scientist reflected mordantly that he’d not had a single such concussion during his years away from Starfleet.

At the engineering station, Ensign Audette reported on their status. “Captain, we’ve sustained moderate damage to the dorsal section of the secondary hull and the starboard nacelle and strut. Lieutenant Ashok reports we’re still warp capable, but we won’t want to push it above four-point-five or so, sir. I’m also showing three of our four shield generators for the aft grid have overloaded and will need to be replaced.”

Sandhurst didn’t respond, so Lar’ragos broke the silence. “Can we compensate for the shortfall in the aft grid by overlapping the laterals?”

“Yes, sir. However, I estimate we’ll get less than thirty-percent coverage on our aft quarter.”

“Do it, then,” said the El Aurian.

The roar of a fire extinguisher discharging finally snapped Sandhurst back to life, and he craned his head around to see Lar’ragos spraying down the smoldering remains of a ruined console. The lieutenant glanced up at him to give the captain an inscrutable look as he handed the extinguisher off to a crewman, then moved to resume his post at Tactical. He assessed his board, “The two remaining corsairs and seven fighters are withdrawing, sir. Shall we pursue?” His message was clear. The fight’s not over, Captain.

Sandhurst hesitated. The Cardassians were vulnerable. He wanted to chase them down, to capture or destroy the remaining ships and spare anyone else the misfortune of an insurgent ambush. However, he felt his first responsibility was to the survivors of Phoenix and his own wounded.

Finding his voice once again, he queried, “Status of the civilian ships?”

Lar’ragos answered crisply, “Reading light to moderate damage on a number of the civilian ships, sir, but they’re all intact. It appears some of the larger cargo ships may have bloodied the interceptors’ noses.” He touched a series of controls and noted, “Sir, I’m picking up multiple distress transponders from Starfleet lifepods. I’m scanning upwards of twenty escape vehicles in orbit and on the surface.”

Two medical technicians carrying a backboard and loaded for bear with several satchels of first-aid equipment arrived from the turbolift. The captain stood, his legs feeling decidedly rubbery beneath him. He moved down into the well and gently turned Juneau’s chair so that she could more easily be removed from her station. Sandhurst called back to Lar’ragos, “Negative on the pursuit. Track their progress; I want to know where they’re going to ground. Helm, plot a course that will allow us to rescue the Phoenix survivors in the least amount of time and execute.”

“Aye, sir.“

As he braced himself against his console with one hand in between bouts of nausea, Plazzi asked, “What about the Cardassian survivors aboard the cruiser, sir?” One of the med-techs swept the gray-haired scientist with the sensor wand from a medical tricorder while injecting him with an analgesic.

Sandhurst answered coldly, “If they’re still alive when we’re done recovering our people, we’ll pick them up as well.” The captain assisted the other med-tech in placing Juneau atop the backboard as gently as possible. He gestured to a nearby crewman, who then picked up one end of the board as the med-tech lifted the other. The two men carried the lieutenant into the turbolift, then paused to wait for Plazzi as the second medic escorted him into the car.

Sandhurst turned back to Lar’ragos. “You have the conn. Carry out recovery operations, and oversee the reformation of the task force. Make sure they circle the wagons, Lieutenant.” The captain stepped up to the upper deck and through the parting doors to the ready room, “I’m available if needed.”

*****

He had been expecting the chime. Pava had given him nearly thirty minutes. Sandhurst had expected him in half that time. “Enter.”

Lar’ragos stepped into the ready room and moved just far enough into the compartment to trigger the doors to close behind him. “I have a status report, sir.”

Sandhurst reached out and toggled his computer terminal off. He’d been assiduously avoiding writing the report detailing Phoenix’s destruction. The event was too fresh in his mind. He needed both time and emotional distance from the incident before he could chronicle it in the sterile prose of a Starfleet missive. “Proceed.”

“We’ve begun recovery ops for the escape pods, and we’ve identified a largely intact section of Phoenix’s primary hull that was thrown clear of the explosion. Science’s life scans of the wreckage are indeterminate, so I’ve ordered search and rescue teams beamed over.”

The captain’s expression was unreadable, but to Lar’ragos’ ear his friend’s vocal inflections were saturated with competing levels of angst and regret. “What of the surviving Cardassian ships?”

“Sensors tracked them to the Crolsa system’s asteroid field, where we lost contact. I don’t know if the interference was a natural byproduct of the asteroid debris, or if they’re employing more sensor countermeasures.”

Sandhurst nodded distractedly, turning away in his chair to look out the large circular viewport behind him. “Any word on Commander Ramirez?”

Lar'ragos remained at parade rest, feet shoulder width apart with hands clasped behind him. “No, sir. None of those rescued from the pods so far were from Phoenix’s bridge. However, it sounds as if her exec was the one who gave the order to abandon ship.”

Sandhurst closed his eyes tightly, then opened them to find Lar’ragos scrutinizing him. He swiveled back towards his security chief and said, “Casualty report?”

“Eight injured; two of them seriously. Sickbay reports that all are expected to recover fully.”

Even that news seemed to bring Sandhurst little relief. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Is that all?”

There was a barely perceptible hesitation before Lar'ragos responded. “That’s all I have to say in my capacity as the ship’s Tactical officer, sir.”

Sandhurst shook his head. “Pava, I really don’t have time for…”

The lieutenant cut him off. “We lost you for a little while out there.” He smiled disarmingly.

Sandhurst met Lar’ragos’ eyes tentatively and looked pained. “Yeah. Not quite sure what that was about.”

The El Aurian’s smile transformed into a conspiratorial smirk. “Well, if you’re going to freeze up, I’d rather it be after the crisis has passed than squarely in the middle.”

“I didn’t say I froze up, Pava,” the captain bristled.

Lar’ragos inclined his head, as if conceding the point. “Perhaps not. I’ll say it, then.”

Sandhurst stood suddenly and brought his hands down on top of the desk with sufficient force to make his computer terminal jump. “Is there a point to this conversation, other than intentionally pissing me off?”

“Good, there you are. Glad to have you back.” Lar'ragos looked strangely relieved.

Sandhurst exhaled loudly as he visibly deflated. He sat back down in his chair. “I don’t know what the hell happened. It’s as if I didn’t expect to live through that engagement. When it ended in our favor, it caught me off guard.” He glanced at his data terminal, where Ramirez’s image and service record had been displayed moments before. “That poor woman didn’t have a chance. It was bad enough that I shanghaied her into this assignment, but I’ve taken every opportunity available to place her squarely in the enemy’s sights.”

Lar’ragos relaxed his stance and stepped forward to pull out a chair and seat himself. “She did her duty. Liana knew the risks of wearing the uniform. You delegated necessary tasks to your first officer; don’t beat yourself up because things didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped.” He steered the conversation back to the incident on the bridge. “I don’t think anybody else really caught on to your little ‘episode.’ Nevertheless, if you want this crew’s confidence and respect, you have to play the part of the captain, regardless of what you’re actually feeling.”

Sandhurst pursed his lips and looked as though he’d just tasted something especially unpalatable. “Thank you for that brief yet oh-so timely refresher from Starfleet Command Officer’s training.”

Lar’ragos glowered at his captain. “Don’t. Don’t dismiss what I have to say. I’m speaking from experience. No one really knows how much of the aura of command is pure theater until they’re sitting in the big chair.”

“Your point?”

Lar'ragos looked as though he were addressing a particularly dense pupil. “You just saved the ship against incredible odds by pulling that stunt out of thin air. What you should have done was acted as though you never had any doubt that it was going to work. Swagger off the bridge like an anointed demigod for all I care, but don’t you dare let those kids out there know how close we just came to cashing it in!”

Sandhurst folded his arms across his chest as he fought the instinct to toss Lar’ragos out of his ready room. He weighed their years of friendship in the balance and forced himself to listen to the other man, as damning as his words were. “So it’s supposed to feel like this? Command, I mean?”

“Absolutely.” Lar'ragos nodded. The lieutenant’s features softened and his voice assumed that easy, conversational tone that he reserved for his pep talks. “Look, your problem is that when you were serving with Captain Ebnal, you always had a safety net. Sure, you had to make some tough calls on your own on occasion, but you knew you’d have his backing when the dust settled. Now, you’re truly on your own for the first time.” Pava leaned across the table, his expression conveying an unusual amount of earnestness for the typically lighthearted officer. “You’re out there, hanging in the proverbial wind. I know it’s scary as hell, having to play the part of someone you’re not. In time it’ll be easier, but until that time arrives you’re going to have to paint on your best captain’s face and be the man your crew expects and deserves.”

Sandhurst digested this. Lar'ragos had more than his share of quirks, but unwarranted candor was not in his repertoire. Sandhurst had been coming to the slow realization that since he’d accepted Admiral Covey’s offer of the Gibraltar commission, he’d been waiting to become ‘the captain.’ It was as if he expected to suddenly undergo a miraculous transformation whereby the confidence and knowledge exhibited by those captains from his past that he so revered would be bestowed upon him.

“I should see to the crew.” Sandhurst stood abruptly. He rounded the desk and moved towards the door. He broke stride to pat his friend on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, and I value your advice.”

Lar’ragos, still seated, grinned up at him. “But?”

“But if you come in here aiming to set me off again, I’m going to have Tark shoot you." Sandhurst very nearly smiled. "A lot.”

“Yes, my captain.”

*****

Standing on the surface of Lakesh for the second time in less than a week, Liana Ramirez wondered what she’d done to anger the fates so. Most of her harrowing escape from the burning remains of Phoenix was a jumbled blur, which she attributed to the head injury she’d sustained in the explosion. Five hours and three hyposprays later, her vision had cleared and her searing migraine had subsided to a dull ache.

Her life pod had set down on a small but verdant island somewhere in Lakesh’s equatorial region. The skies overhead were choked with clouds, and a light rain of soot and ash filtered down from the beleaguered grey mass above. It was clear that although she might go undetected by the Cardassians for some time here, she would not be able to survive on the island for more than a few weeks at best. The foliage was already beginning to brown and wilt with the reduced sunlight caused by the growing layers of dust and smoke in the planet’s atmosphere.

Ramirez was in pure survival mode. When, on occasion, her mind wandered to the topic of Phoenix’s destruction, she found herself largely numb to the event and its repercussions. Instead, she focused exclusively on the matter of endurance. She had assessed her emergency survival supplies, and determined that with strict rationing, she could stretch her water and foodstuffs for a month. Unfortunately, the escape pod had no refrigeration or stasis capability, so it would be impossible to gather and preserve any of the island’s edible fruit or vegetables to stave off the inevitable demise of the local flora.

As far as Ramirez could tell, she was the only person on the island. The lifepod’s sensors failed to show anything else of note except several varieties of small marsupial and avian analogues. She didn’t know if her apparent isolation was by accident or design, but surmised that whoever had programmed the final destination of the lifepods might have wanted them scattered as widely as possible across Lakesh, to better increase the odds against their all being wiped out by a single attack.

She carefully packed up her survival rations as she resisted the urge to finish off the energy bar she’d consumed half of. Unexpectedly, her compin crackled to life; “This is the Gibraltar hailing any survivors of the USS Phoenix on coded emergency channel 38.7. Please respond on this channel, utilizing encryption matrix Zed-Alpha-1.” Ramirez froze, uncertain if she was hearing something genuine, or a ploy by insurgent forces to locate any survivors. It seemed unlikely that Gibraltar might have survived the pitched battle in orbit. The message repeated, and Ramirez decided it that she would have to take the chance that it was real.

Forgoing the delicate task of opening and reconfiguring her combadge, she climbed back inside the escape vehicle and accessed the pod’s communications system. She set the appropriate encryption and pressed the transmit toggle. “This is Lt. Commander Liana Ramirez to Gibraltar. Repeat, this is Ramirez, do you copy?”

“We read you, Commander. Good to hear your voice. Standby for transport.” She recognized the voice as belonging to Ensign Browder, the Beta-watch Operations officer.

“Hang on, I’ll need to gather my things and set the pod’s self destruct.” Ramirez didn’t want Federation encryption ciphers falling into the hands of the enemy. She quickly gathered up the pod’s ration stores and then set the destruct mechanism on a five minute delay. Her task complete, she tapped her compin. “Ramirez to Gibraltar, one to beam up.”

Ramirez vanished and left the slowly dying island behind.

*****

<cont'd>
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